Click here for Home
GOING THE DISTANCE
"FORTY-FOUR YEARS OF HARLEY RIDING"
Photo by Genghis
44 YEARS LATER: My Iron Partner In Life, Mabel
How long has it been?
Time passes by in a flash, and it's all a matter of perspective. A man remembers his first Harley-Davidson like he remembers his first wife. In her prime. A man doesn't think of his first Harley motorcycle as she may be in the present. In the case of my first Harley, I'm not even sure what country she's in. The last country she was in that was known to me, was England, when she was owned by Dave, of "Dave & Bev" fame. I think of my first Harley, "Sally the Bitch" in this way when I try to divine where she is and what she looks like and how she sounds and how she runs, and whose arms she is in now: As in the custody of "Dave & Bev Near London." Dave & Bev Near London was where she was last, when I spoke to Bev Near London, after I spoke to Bev's Dad Near London. Dave and Bev didn't have a phone, so Bev left her dad's number. Bev's dad then tried to coordinate a time when Bev would be visiting, for me to call.
This all came about when Bev contacted me through Iron Horse magazine, to tell me that her husband Dave now owned Sally. This was in response to a "search" for my long lost love, that I publicized in IH. So, Sally was in Dave's arms now, huh? I felt a jealous twinge as I pictured Dave slowly caressing Sally's silver jugs, as Bev rapped to me in her lilting British accent.
Bev told me that they lived right outside of London, and that she would try to arrange for Dave to get on the phone with me. For whatever reason, Dave never did get on the phone with me.
This was back when Snow's Iron Horse was still up and running, as well as a Stroker Shovelhead on 108 octane. Ah, those were the days.
Truth to tell, I can't think of Sally in any other configuration other than the way She Used To Be, back in her prime when she was my then Iron Partner In Life (can't you hear Barbra Streisand singing "The Way We Were" in the background?).
When she was young, Sally was a redheaded beauty in candy apple red, with a molded frame and distinct wheels with black spokes and chrome rims. That's the way I think of her, the same way I think of my first wife Nancie, in her prime. I don't think of Nancie the way she might be now. That would be an exercise in futility, since I have no earthly idea of how she might look now. I think of Nancie the way she looked in her prime, long before The Divorce.
"Long before" is misleading though, because were were only married 4 1/2 years. Compare that with my 30 years with Patty, who is the love of my life. Four and a half years is but a short city block in the journey of life, whose distance can circle the globe. However, I spent eighteen years with Sally, more than triple the span of time I spent with Nancie. Think about the longevity of such a man/machine relationship, compared with the fragility of a man/woman relationship between two people who cannot mesh.
Nevertheless, I think of Nancie and Sally in the same way: Young, fresh and forever beautiful. That is the way of the world when one gets older. We tend to think in terms of older loves in idealistic terms, shunning the possibility of sagging breasts and excessive piston play.
Old wives and old bikes, never get old. They stay cemented in stasis, like fledgeling butterflies caught in clear lucite, preserved as they were, forever. Speaking of time perspective, I've been with my current Iron Partner In Life Mabel, my '71 Super Glide, for 27 years. That in itself, puts the less than five years I spent with Nancie, into perspective.
Yesterday, I rode Mabel to where it all began, my parents' old building in Jackson Heights in Queens, where they had their Chinese laundry below the apartment we lived in. The laundry is now a grocery store. I hadn't been there in a while. The last time I rode by there about a year ago, the laundry was a computer store. My, how things have changed. My life as a biker started in this building, when I stilled lived with my parents and was going to college. By that time, I owned my '64 Vette. My Motor Mind was undergoing change (but with plenty of hope), as my attraction to motorcycles became strong enough for me to consider getting a motorcycle. It had to be a Harley, natch. Now, this was big deal to me since all I ever wanted since the age of 13 was a Vette. Until my awakening to the siren call of Harleys, I dreamt and lived nothing but Chevrolet Corvettes. In fact, I saved my pennies starting at the age of 13, until I had enough saved by the age of 19, to acquire my used '64 vette in 1966. Yet, here I was three years later, dreaming about the Two Wheeled Adventure. Since I was still a college student while this was all happening, I didn't have enough money to buy a Harley and keep my Vette. It looked like my beloved Vette had to go if I wanted the Harley badly enough. Selling the Vette was the only way to get the cash to buy a Harley. In this chess game of life, I had to sacrifice the queen to win the game.
Exposure to my older friends in Jackson Heights who were bikers, was slowly eroding my resistance to buying a Harley. In the back of my quietly roiling mind, I suspected that it was just a matter of time until I caved to the twin-barrel call. I was definitely developing a twin jugs fetish. Oh, those fulsome barrels! Was there a Harley frame strong enough, to contain 'em?
It wasn't until I had my Vette parked at Connecting Highway in Queens on a steamy summer night, that the pivotal moment arrived when I knew that all was lost, and I realized that I was headed toward a Harley at warp speed. "Connecting" was a notorious street drag racing site. On that particular summer saturday night, I was parked in my Vette with the top down. As the sound of street dragging cars filled the air, an even louder and more distinct sound took me out of my reverie. A biker on a straight piped panhead passed my car at full throttle, the biker's lucky hands lightly gripping the drag bars astride tall glide risers. The drag bars on glide risers, sat on a short FL length wide glide fork. This event and this memory of that panhead's front end, is why I run the same setup on Mabel today. It is an idealized vision in my mind.
As the furious sound from his straight pipes reverberated as he blasted down the street, I felt like an idea had ignited in me, that would change my life forever.
I had to have a Harley.
It was as simple as that. I had to have a Harley, and it had to be a Harley. I felt this with the urgency and associated anxiety, of a virgin waiting for his first time between creamy spread thighs.
The magazines of the day often compared big bikes like BSA Lightnings and the like, to Harley Sportsters. The rags mostly preferred the Britbikes to the brutish Sportster. Their attitude was elitist. Even though the Sportster blew 'em away like dandelions blown apart by hurricane-force winds, motorcycle rags of the day favored Britbikes to the farm-implement-like Harleys. It was hard for 'em to wrap their geeky minds around the Brute Power of the XLCH.
But in my mind, the Sportster XLCHs ruled the street with an Iron Fist. To me, it had to be the badass XLCH or nothing. The Limeys always seemed like second class bikes, but I was not alone in this feeling. The concensus in the biker subculture about Limeys was that they had won the role wihout an audition, as steppingstones to Harley-Davidsons. The apologia of the day was typically, "Yeah, but I only have this Triumph until I can afford a Harley."
Any today who deny that this general feeling that the second-class status of Limeys prevailed in the 1960s biker subculture, are either in deep denial or engaged in forcible revisionist history.
At that time, I wasn't thinking in terms of the righteousness of Harley 74s. This was my speed period, where I loved hotrodded Vettes and AC Cobras. The majesty and outlaw class of the stripped Harley 74, wouldn't hit me until later in life.
It was a slow awakening to the outlaw call of the Harley 74, whose grip finally encircled me by the early 1980s. Before the yearning for a Seventy-Four became full-throated, I was content--although decreasingly so as time went by---with Sally. An interesting space-perception phenomenon asserted itself with Sally, in my mind. My Sportster felt increasingly small, as the '70s transitioned into the 1980s. I yearned to reach out more with my arms to drag bars farther away, and with my feet to forward pegs farther away than on Sally. Sally the Bitch began feeling more cramped. I made forward pegs out of some 5 inch long bolts I found at a store on Canal Street in Manhattan, and covered these with these gray plastic sleeves I also found on Canal Street. These sleeves were closed on one end and they were eactly the correct diameter for the bolts, so when these sleeves were epoxied on, the forward pegs looked like they manufactured as custom pegs. There are some interesting industrial stores on Canal Street. I bolted these onto the Sportster's front engine mounting plates. Yet, I wanted pegs farther away. Such as on an FL model.
It was during this period in the late '70s that I developed an absolute obsession with the shovelhead motor. I grew increasingly enchanted with the historical outlaw class, of the big twin, and to me, the shovelhead was an improved panhead, if that makes sense to you. Harley may have made noises about Evolution motors later, but the culmination of the evolution of the traditional big twin, occurred with the shovelhead mill at the end of that three-motor train, as far as I was concerned.
The knucklehead-panhead-shovelhead OHVs' roles as the driving sources of stripped Harley big twins in the biker subculture, was undeniable, and tinged with magic and majesty. So much in my estimation, that my desire for a shovel-powered FL became unquenchable. Just like the moment at Connecting Highway when the pivotal event of the biker on his panhead passing me in my Vette foretold my entry into the Harley world, the moment when I knew that I just had to have a shovelhead, was a watershed event in my life.
That moment took place at the old New York Coliseum in 1982, at a hotrod and motorcycle show, that Patty and I attended. Harley-Davidson had a display there, featuring a silver Harley Low Rider. Patty said, "Go on, sit on it and see how it feels." I sat on her, extended my feet to the forward pegs, gripped her handlebars and took her off of the kickstand. I glanced down at the shovelhead motor nestled beneath me, and I knew. I knew that my future Harley would be a swingarm shovel, and began saving my money for her. That Low Rider felt so right. The chemistry one develops with given Harley models, is as mysterious as chemistry between lovers. Is it possible that Harley motorcycles exude pheremones? The race was on. The race was on to save about four grand, which was what it would take to buy a used shovel at that time. I wasn't fast out of the gate, but my saving was slow and steady.
It took three years.
Three years of scrimping and saving, sacrificing where I could to save every spare dollar I could to sock away the $4,000 I needed for My Shovelhead Whose Name I Yet Did Not Know. By mid-1985, I had the cash I needed, and the search was on. I scoured the Buy Lines for used Harleys. I looked at a few shovels of questionable repute and value, until I found this ad: "1971 H-D Super Glide exc cond, garaged. $4,000 firm." To make a long story short, I felt so positive about this bike
after speaking with the owner by telephone, that I showed up with both the cash and a cargo van to take her home. I took a gamble based on my instinct that the owner was earnest and honest.
The owner was the original owner, and he mentioned that another potential buyer was going to look at the Super Glide on the same day I was coming. I got there first, paid him the cash, and enlisted the former owner's help in pushing Mabel into the rented Hertz cargo van. Of course, I didn't know the Super Glide's name was Mabel. I came into this knowledge later.
I'm so glad that my quick action and blitzkrieg acquisition of Mabel, scored my Iron Partner For Life. Mabel as you know from previous writing, turned out to be every bit as good a girl as I thought her to be. 27 years ago, I became a two-Harley owner, but that wouldn't last long. Mabel became my main bike. My plan was to give Sally to my son when he came of age, but that plan changed because my son never developed an interest in Harleys or riding. At that time, I kept Mabel in a garage in the Lower East Side of NYC, and stored the Sportster in my mother's Chinese laundry in Jackson Heights, Queens---the very same store where I had my infamous (search the GTD table of contents for an article about this) Chinese Laundry Bike Shop. By the early 1990s, my mother was slowly developing Alzheimer's disease. Her increasing dementia meant that we'd have to sell her building. This also meant that I had no place to store Sally the Bitch. I had to make a decision.
Since it became clear to me that my son would never really be interested in motorcycles, the second best choice to inherit Sally, was obvious: My father-in-law in California, Orazio "Chick" Cicchinelli, would get the prize by default. Chick was a biker. I enlisted a freelance guy who was driving out to California, to take Sally to Chick in North Hollywood. It wasn't exactly a tearful departure when I saw Sally off, but I was pretty nostalgic about the whole thing. What happened in the course of the next few years was, Chick eventually traded in Sally to an independent shop, for an Evo FL model. It's anyone's guess how Sally ended transporting to England. I've never ferreted out the accurate story about how this happened.
So, that left me with Mabel, my one and only. Which is the way it supposed to be. Things had changed since I became a biker in 1968, but one thing has never changed: My dedication to My Harley. In 1989, I sent some letters to the editor of Iron Horse magazine, David Snow. That escalated to my sending articles to David "on spec" (meaning that if the editor dug the pieces, that he would publish 'em). One of these was titled, "Going the Distance." If my memory is correct, the thrust of that article---which was published in Iron Horse, was that certain types of bikers became attached to their Harleys, and therefore "went the distance" with 'em, while other bikers couldn't get rid of their latest bike fast enough, to move on to another bike. This latter pattern of behavior I contended, occurred because these types of bikers were never able to grow attached to their Harleys. They could never relate to their Harley cycles as entities with souls.
This is what separates the two classes of bikers in the subculture: Those who truly love their motorcycles as if the bikes were alive, and those who treated their Harleys as inanimate objects, worthy of no more emotional attachment than disposable appliances. I fall unabashedly, into the former category, and feel sorry for any biker who cannot love his motorcycle. We all know the now famous anecdote about the Hell's Angel from the '60s who when a journalist asked the question of him, "What is 'love' to you?", answered in reply, "Love is the feeling I get when I think of my motorcycle." That says it all, succinctly and with zero wasted descriptive terminology, about what true bikers are all about. It is a simple matter, to be taken at face value.
Articles I wrote "on spec" appeared with such regularity in Iron Horse, that David offered to let me write a monthly column titled, "Going the Distance." This was around 1993. I'm truly honored to have been a small part of Iron Horse until the Horse's doors closed in 1997. Beyond that, I'm not a very social person with few true friends in life, but I'll tell you this: I'm proud and honored to call Snow one of my true friends in life. I'll never forget the way David came through for me, after my 1994 wreck.
People outside the biker subculture wonder what the culture's all about, and why bikers are so emotionally involved with their Harleys. Bikers within the culture often ponder this too, yours truly included. For a biker, it is a question of profound meaning, one whose profundity non-bikers can only wildly guess at. For bikers, their Harley-Davidsons are significant anchors in life, rivalling family and friends as meaningful beings in bikers' lives. It is often impossible for non-bikers to understand this, for this reason: They cannot relate. Bikers understand the significance of their Harleys all too well for this reason: We can relate, and do see our bikes as living entities that give our existences enhanced meaning. This is what I've known from the very beginning, 44 years ago. Later.
Photo by Genghis
44 YEARS AGO: Genghis and "Sally the Bitch."